Two Directorial Debuts to Watch

The last week has seen the release of two films by first-time directors that I’m confident will end up on several year-end, best-of horror movie lists.

The first is the Shudder exclusive The Beach House, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. The film follows two 20-somethings whose relationship is at a crossroads, and in an attempt to salvage it, they spend a weekend at the beach. Yet, it turns into an aquatic nightmare for them as an environmental contagion takes over the town. The movie has such a sense of dread, especially in its last act, that it may not be for everyone. But it’s one of the most effective ecological films and body horror flicks that I’ve seen in a while. Anyone into Lovecraftian horror should check it out. I reviewed it for HorrOrigins. The review is fairly spoiler free.

The second film, which released one day after The Beach House, is IFC Midnight’s Relic, marking the debut of Natalie Erika James. While The Beach House serves up summer scares and mostly takes place in daylight, Relic’s atmosphere and palate is far darker. Largely set in a creaky countryside home surrounded by a thick forest, the movie highlights the ravages of dementia. It’s a devastating, somber film that’s drawn comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. I also reviewed this one for HorrOrigins. I have no doubt Relic is a film that will continue to build buzz and will be talked about over the next several years. It’s the perfect example of how horror is the perfect vehicle to address more serious issues, in this case the aging process.

Pay attention to Brown and James. Their strong debuts make for promising careers ahead.

In Honor Of….

Anyone that knows me on a personal level well, or anyone who has read any of my poetry collections, knows that I lost my dad to cancer. I was young when this happened, and by young I mean 20, a junior in college. It happened fast. He was diagnosed by the end of my winter break that year, and by February, he died. When I learned of his diagnosis, I remember walking in the January cold, trying to process the news that my dad had throat cancer. I didn’t cry. I don’t even think I screamed. I do remember how tightly I clenched my fists that hung at my sides as I walked. Yet, I knew something was wrong after he picked me up from college and stopped on the side of the PA Turnpike to vomit. He also thinned since I saw him last. Only a month or so into the new semester, I received a call that I had to come home again because my father was essentially on his death bed, and I remember that drive home with my sister and the emotions that ran through us both that blustery February day, as we knew driving home meant we were driving home to say goodbye to our dad.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece of flash non-fiction for the Schuylkill Valley Journal’s blog for an “Origin of Interest” series they ran. I was asked to write one about my love of the horror genre. It didn’t take me long to start writing. Some of the best memories I have between my father and I involve watching films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and Friday the 13th with him. He took me to Blockbuster many Friday nights, where I roamed the aisles and picked out another horror VHS rental. Beyond that, he also fed and supported my obsession to turn my childhood home into a graveyard every Halloween, complete with mannequins that occupied the porch, including Dracula in a coffin and a bloody chef. He worked wonders with fishing wire.

In honor of Father’s Dad and my dad, I’m sharing again that piece I wrote for the SVJ blog.

To all the dads out there, Happy Fathers Day.

Shirley, Madness, and the Writing Life

Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a movie I want to show to all of my creative writing classes and then discuss its portrayal of the writing process. Elisabeth Moss is brillant as the famed horror writer, but beyond her spellbinding performance, there are a lot of layers to discuss.

First, the film plays with the perceptions of Jackson, that she was a witch, that she was sick in the head. It also depicts her as an outsider in the small college town, where her husband teaches literature at Bennington. Perhaps most importantly, when thinking about writing students, the film shows that writing is hard work. There is no illusion in that regard. Jackson becomes obsessed with her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. In a fevered state of mind, Jackson works on new pages literally from morning until night, through dinner. There is no muse that just shows up. She goes to the desk.

Additionally, Decker is focused on portraying the struggles women faced in the 1950s to be heard, even someone with Jackson’s success. There is a fictitious subplot about a young couple that feeds this larger narrative. In the context of the film, it works.

I have a lot more to say about Shirley, which I shared in this review for Signal Horizon. Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.

Celebrating the Success of The Wretched and an Interview with Its Directors for HorrOrigins

With theaters still closed due to COVID-19, film distributors have had to find creative ways to get their films shown. IFC Midnight took a risk by releasing some of their newer titles at drive-ins, including The Wretched, a witch creature feature written and directed by brothers Drew and Brett Pierce. The result of IFC’s move is the fact that a small indie horror film is now the #1 film in the country.

I interviewed the Pierce brothers for HorrOrigins. We talked about their dad’s work on The Evil Dead, their love of independent and genre cinema, and the success of their film. The story of their success is also the story of the film industry right now. With theaters closed, distributors, especially smaller ones, need to find a way to reach audiences. Now, IFC Midnight is releasing more of their films at drive-ins. Does this mean the pandemic will cause a revival of the drive-in? That remains to be seen. Theaters will reopen, maybe as soon as mid-late summer, but who knows if they’ll sell many tickets. Drive-ins offer a safe alternative. For now, at least, The Wretched is the story of a small indie film succeeding in incredibly tough circumstances. That’s a story worth celebrating.

Antrum: A Clever Use of Found Footage

Due to COVID-19, theaters are still closed. Streaming services are the only means to view new content, other than drive-ins. The releases of bigger horror films, like Candyman and Antebellum, have been delayed. As a result, this has given the chance for indie films to find an audience. Recently, an article at AV Club caught my attention regarding the success of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. It snagged Amazon Prime’s top-trending title last month, during the height of isolation. Though initially hesitant to watch the flick, namely because it sounded gimmicky, I gave it a stream. On the one hand, the low-budget film (shot for $60,000), has a few aspects going for it, namely its 1970s aesthetic. That said, the plot and characters are too thin, and the result is a film that doesn’t add up to much of a cohesive plot or narrative arc.

Directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini, Antrum is initially about “the deadliest film ever made,” so cursed that a theater in Budapest burned down when it screen the film in 1988. Faux film reviewers and horror hounds are interviewed in the opening minutes, and it’s a clever use of the exhausted found footage subgenre. It builds hype for the movie within a movie, that is the story of Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) and Nathan (Rowan Smyth), siblings who embark on an adventure to dig a hole to the pits of hell to rescue their recently euthanized dog because Nathan has visions he’s been sent to the fiery place, for whatever reason. Oralee locates a spot, telling her brother it’s where Lucifer landed when he was kicked out of heaven. They grab shovels and start digging, and that’s about as much of a plot as the film offers.

From there, the story loses its narrative and descends into a film of bizarre, often disjointed images, some of them unsettling. There are strange noises in the woods. At one point, an image of Lucifer’s face lingers on the screen longer than the creepy flashes of Pazuzu’s face that haunt The Exorcist. There are even a few Nazis hanging around a massive demonic statue, but they serve no real purpose to the plot, other than a sense of danger.

If you set narrative gripes aside, the film deserves some props for the way it was shot, mimicking 1970s Satanic cult films. The grainy quality serves the film well, especially when juxtaposed with some of the images that flash on screen. It’s a clever aesthetic and perhaps the best aspect of Antrum.

There’s also something to be said for the attention the film has garnered. The AV Club article notes that when it payed at film festivals in 2018, it caught the attention of Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project, the film that started the found footage hype back in 1999. Like Antrum, The Blair Witch Project used found footage to bend reality. It had one of the most clever marketing campaigns in all of horror history, creating missing person posters for its three lead actors and a website during the early days of the internet dedicated to their “disappearance.” Antrum uses fake interviews to hype what follows in the rest of the film.

Antrum won’t have the legacy and influence of The Blair Witch Project. No other found footage film will, but it does do something unique and interesting with the tired found footage genre. It’s slow-hype and word of mouth, including teens on TikTok debating if Antrum is actually a cursed film, is commendable, especially for a film shot on a budget of $60,000 by a studio (Uncork’d Entertainment) known for knock-offs and b movies. COVID has given some indie movies a bigger audience. Give Antrum a stream. Ignore its narrative in-cohesion and enjoy its 70s Satanic art house aesthetic.

A Few Updates

It’s been a busy month of May, and I wanted to share some recent writing projects that are now out in the world.

First, Daryl Sznyter and I had the honor or interviewing Xavier Neal-Burgin, director of the outstanding documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. You can read the interview over at HorrOrigins. If you haven’t seen the doc, watch it. Even if you’re a film history buff or horror fan, I promise you that you’ll learn something new.

Recently, Horror Homeroom put together a journal in honor of the 40-year anniversary of Friday the 13th. The articles address a far range of topics, including the portrayal of masculinity in the franchise and critical reception to the films. I have an article in the issue entitled “No Clowning Around: The Comedic and Gothic Elements of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.” Check out the journal entitled Friday the 13th at 40 and enjoy!

Lastly, I have an interview with Coralie Fargeat, director of Revenge, out in Signal Horizon Magazine. Check it out!

{Review} Blood Quantum Is a Must-See That Rewrites the Zombie Narrative

 

Just when you think the zombie genre is exhausted, along comes a film that rewrites the tropes and feels incredibly relevant for the era. Canadian director Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore full-length Blood Quantum is such a film. It’s highly entertaining, gory, and rife with social commentary about the erasure of Indigenous peoples. It’s the type of zombie movie that you wish George A. Romero was still around to see.

Featuring a nearly all-Ingenious cast, the film is set on the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow, where, oddly enough, Indigenous inhabitants are immune to a zombie plague. In the first scene, gutted salmon come back to life, their tales flapping. Not long after, dogs reanimate, snarling and looking for a meal. Six months later,  the world is a hellscape.

Throughout the 90-minute run-time, the film tackles a number of issues, including addiction, isolation, absent fathers,  inter-generational violence, trauma, and, of course, colonization. Even the film’s title  implores the viewer to research its meaning.  Once the six month period hits, the zombie narrative takes on an entirely different meaning, as the Ingenious characters suddenly find themselves with real power, left to determine which white people are allowed on the rez, inspecting them for bites and other potential threats.

Watch the trailer below:

Michael Greyeyes as Traylor, a sheriff, is a subdued type of hero, initially called to investigate a strange set of circumstances way beyond his control. He also serves as a moral compass of sorts, trying to ensure that a fair set of rules and ethics are enforced. Yet, he’s not without his flaws. He had a messy split with his ex, Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse who evolves into quite the survivor. His sons, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) and Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), mention more than once how absent he was in their life.

The sons are another matter entirely, well-written and well-drawn, total opposites. Lysol reflects a simmering anger and rage that the outbreak only exacerbates. Joseph, meanwhile, displays more of his father’s better attributes. He is calm and level-headed. His relationship with a white girl, Charlie (Olivia Scriven), however, only deepens the tensions and opposing world views between he and his brother.

Michael Greyeyes and Forrest Goodluck in Blood Quantum (2019)

Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon)

The best zombie movies are the ones that hold a mirror up to our society and make us ask how we’d react when the world goes to hell. During COVID-19, Blood Quantum couldn’t be more timely. It makes us pay attention to a people that have often been erased and it gives us their story. This is a movie about zombies, sure, and there’s plenty of gore and cool kills, but this is also a story  about father and sons and a people that have always survived. The film is rich in symbolism, from the names ( Joseph, the first father), to some of the settings (a church that contains some of the film’s most brutal violence), to wise quotes about the our treatment of the Earth and perhaps a greater reason and purpose for the outbreak. The film carries on the tradition of social commentary in the zombie film, while focusing on a much different narrative that needs to be told. Blood Quantum is smart and wildly entertaining. Give it your attention.

Blood Quantum is streaming on Shudder now.

“Santa Clarita” Essay in Lieu of a Conference Presentation

Drew Barrymore in Santa Clarita Diet (2017)

 

Two weeks ago, I was supposed to present a paper on “Santa Clarita Diet,” zombie narratives, and the monstrous-feminine on a panel at the Pop Culture Association Conference in Philly. I was looking forward to this all year, but alas, COVID-19 canceled it, along with every other conference. The conference organizers made the right move in canceling the event for everyone’s health and safety.

Luckily, the essay is available to read online, and it will eventually be available in print via The Schuylkill Valley Journal. I am incredibly grateful for this and the fact that folks can still access my work. Here is hoping that next year’s conference in Boston happens.

Stay safe and well everyone!

{Review} Shudder’s Cursed Films

How Shudder's Cursed Films Explores the Most Troubled Horror ...

Ever since the success of last year’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Shudder has been pumping out more exclusive horror documentaries. They have one coming out later this year focused on queer horror, and this month, they dropped Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series that explores horror films with alleged “curses” attached to them. Featured films include The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The CrowThe Omen, and The Twilight Zone Movie. Thus far, only the episode on The Exorcist has dropped, but for any horror aficionado, the 20-minute episodes are an entertaining look at some of the challenges that plagued the productions of these famous films, and in turn, led to clever marketing campaigns that increased ticket sales.

The Exorcist is the perfect example of how rumors of a cursed production could serve to cement a film’s legendary status. To be fair, the film’s production was plagued by a few unusual circumstances. Shooting was delayed after an on-set fire. Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died when the film was in post-production, and their characters died in the film. The aftermath and reactions to the film were so intense that people thought Linda Blair was actually evil because she played Regan.

Blair is the real star of the first episode, as she opens up about how difficult the filming process was because director William Friedkin pushed his actors and actresses so much that it led to a few on-site injuries. For instance, Blair injured her back when a piece of rigging broke, and Regan’s mother, actress Ellen Burstyn, was injured during a scene where Regan throws her across the room. The blood-curdling scream heard in that shot is a result of injury. Many of the film’s performances are unmatched in horror cinema because some of the pain was real.

162525-horror-the-exorcist-screenshot

Much of this lore is already well-known, but what’s more intriguing is the impact The Exorcist had, especially when televangelists like Billy Graham stated that there was the power of evil within the film. This led to a brilliant marketing campaign that played up the hype and stories about people fainting and passing out in the theater.  The episode includes a trailer for The Exorcist that was never shown and played with the idea that the film itself was evil. Horror fans should watch the episode just to catch a glimpse of that long lost trailer. It’s a a relatively unknown piece of film history.

Fast forward to today, and the idea of possession is very much still in the public consciousness. Cursed Films credits The Exorcist’s legacy for that, and the end of the episode follows contemporary exorcists as they try to dispel demons from victims who genuinely believe that they’re possessed. Mind you, these people are not trained by the Catholic Church.  Yet, the episode poses the question  whether or not these modern demon-slayers are doing it out of the goodness of their heart or to make a quick buck. You decide.

Cursed Films doesn’t offer any evidence that the films were actually cursed. Rather, the series looks at the lore surrounding some of the genre’s most famous films, while offering some candid interviews with people like Linda Blair who are horror royalty. The behind-the-scenes tidbits and the exploration of a film’s legacy and its impact on popular culture make the series an interesting watch. The short episodes are binge-worthy.

Episodes 2 and 3 release today on Shudder.

{Film Review} Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/v22vodart/17406396/p17...

No matter what, 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was always going to face some challenges. First, there is the simple fact that it’s a sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic. Sequels generally have mixed critical reviews and lower box office success. By the end of its run, the film grossed$30 million, which is not bad, but a drop off from the original film’s $57 million box office haul. More notable are the risks that the film took. Freddy’s Revenge is essentially a possession story about the demon of the dream world overtaking the shy final boy Jesse (Mark Patton). The film spawned intense backlash over its not-so-subtle gay references and caused Patton to quit acting during the AIDS crisis. In the last few years, as Freddy’s Revenge has gained a following in the LGBT community, Patton has resurfaced to speak about the film, including in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.  The 90-minute doc is a must see for the way that it places the legacy of Freddy’s Revenge and Patton’s career within the larger framework and historical context of  LGBT history.

Directed by Tyler Jensen and Roman Chimienti, the film begins by following Mark in the present day, as he he makes his rounds on the horror convention circuit, meetings fans and celebrating the newfound viewership of the once-maligned sequel. It’s clear from the outset that Patton has aged and that shaking hands and signing autographs is an exhilarating, yet exhausting experience. Midway through the documentary, it’s revealed that Patton battled several illnesses at once, including HIV and cancer, after he quit acting in the mid-1980s.

Patton notes several times that he wants young LGBT fans to remember their history. The impact that the AIDS crisis had on Patton and the larger community is made more real by his commentary that’s mixed with news footage from the time period. There are chilling clips of patients bone-thin, bound to a hospital bed. At one point Patton comments that he knows what it’s like to see zombies walking down the street and that’s what it was like to be part of that community in the 1980s. Furthermore, Patton’s personal experience is placed in a larger historical context, namely the impact that AIDS had on Hollywood. Actors had to take blood tests before landing a role. The paparazzi outed men and killed their careers. Fear and paranoia swept the film business.

In that sense, Freddy’s Revenge takes on greater historical significance because it came out during the height of the AIDS crisis, and at the time, Patton was not out of the closet. Its gay undertones, including an S & M scene, a gay bay dream sequence, a leather daddy gym teacher, and few more subtle references, like a board game called probe in Jesse’s closet, made publications like The Village Voice refer to it as a gay film upon its release. Even to this day, however, screenwriter David Chaskin and director  Jack Sholder deny that they wanted to make a straight-up gay horror film. Only after conversations with Patton, including in the documentary, and more recent articles about the film have the director and screenwriter changed their tone.

Mark Patton in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

(Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Yet, the documentary also functions as a reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that being gay and out meant losing your job. Such was the case with Patton, whose agent told him that due to Freddy’s Revenge, he’d always be cast a gay character. Additionally, the initial backlash to the film was so immense that it carried over to the internet age, and the documentary highlights some of the online gay-bashing comments that Patton had to endure.

It took time and many years, but Freddy’s Revenge finally found its audience, and one of the most endearing aspects of the documentary are interviews with young, gay fans talking about how much a character like Jesse matters to them, how they could relate to his character when they were teenagers. Furthermore, the documentary is a reminder that the horror genre has always been about Otherness, and in that regard, Freddy’s Revenge is indeed the gayest horror film ever made. My Scream Queen should cement its legacy as such and finally give Patton his justified due for the amount of work he’s done on behalf of the gay community after walking away from acting and surviving the AIDS crisis. This is an important documentary, not only for the horror community, but perhaps more importantly, for the LGBT community. It’s a reminder just how much representation matters.